In an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com, Williams Formula 1 team's new recruit Sergey Sirotkin has offered an in-depth view into his first few weeks embedded within the legendary Grove-based outfit.
Sirotkin, who has already moved to England and has been in the country for all but a couple of days in 2018, spoke to Motorsport.com during the official launch of the team's all-new FW41 F1 challenger.
Sergey, let's talk about the timetable a little. You’ve said you’ve spent all weekdays at the factory during last five weeks. What do you do during the weekends?
I stop by on the weekends as well, for training. I'm so busy during the weekdays that normally I only have the time to train in the evenings. And usually that works out fine, but after a tough day on a simulator you just can't train as hard as you need to. So the hardest training sessions are left for the weekends. So, I'm at base almost every day.
Knowing you, I imagine that there you're like a kid in a chocolate factory?
Yeah, and that, in a sense, is a weakness of mine. I really like doing what I do, no matter how difficult it gets. Looking back at these five weeks, you could even say that it would've been more correct to rest up a bit, say “no” to some things. Say that I still have to get back home, recover a little. But I understand why everything we're doing is so important. I'm aware what these sacrifices are for – because what we're doing now will truly be beneficial for later. I understand why the engineers need this work to be done, and I have not yet learned to say “no”.
The team has rented you a flat. Is that for this small period during the pre-season, or for good?
Yeah, I've moved. It's not far from Grove – a small village, Abingdon-on-Thames. As far as I'm aware, it's right at the head of the Thames.
Sounds like a place where it's easy to get bored.
Well, I'm alone, yeah. But with a schedule like this, it's hard to be bored. I wake up at 6:15 sharp every morning – I don't have to change my alarm settings every day – so that I can head out before eight o'clock and the traffic jams, and be at base at 8:30 guaranteed. Usually I make it there earlier.
The work day ends at four or five – if everything is according to plan. Maybe a bit after five. Then after you train a bit, it's half-past seven in the best case scenario. Then you head to the store, buy something to eat, cook something – at that point you don't care in the least where you are and what the surroundings look like. Main thing is to lie down, get some sleep and wake up at 6:15. And that's for five weeks straight.
It's probably a pretty good place for not thinking about the fact the whole world – or at least those at all interested in racing – have learned your name in just a couple of weeks.
I've felt, definitely, a certain level of attention at one moment, from all sorts and places. But the last few weeks have been so packed that my phone, with all the messages... I've not even read the news in a long time.
Did you get many messages of congratulations? Did you get to read all of them?
Unfortunately not. Don't mean to upset anyone, but there were just too many to get through all of them.
Have you met Frank Williams yet?
Yes, many times. Actually, there's a story of how he first saw me at base this year. I was doing regular – two, three times a week – pitstop practice with mechanics. I'm on the wheel gun. One time we were practicing, I wasn't in uniform and Frank showed up, and I had my back turned to him. He watched it, and then said – this new mechanic, looks a bit raw, needs more time to train with the wheel gun. He was told later that it was me. So that was our first meeting this year.
I've seen him during weekends a couple of times. Once I turned up for training on Sunday morning, he asked what I was doing there. Told him I was there to train. Then I came in in the evening and saw him while waiting for the physio. “You again?”
Right now you're probably mostly talking to the engineers. Everyone knows Rob Smedley is a pretty straightforward, direct kind of guy. How has it been working with him?
First thing that he asked me when we'd met – as I recall it – during seat fitting before Abu Dhabi, for the test, was: “You and Robert tested for Renault. Who was quicker?” So that's the first thing he told me, and honestly, in his place, I would've probably asked the same thing. We've got a good relationship. His directness and honesty means a lot in this world. I'm the same in a way, so it makes it easier for me. We work together very well.
When we spoke before Abu Dhabi, I asked whether it'd be the biggest test in your career...
And I said it could be. And now I can say it was.
Did you feel right after than that your chances had improved? Did your perception change?
Yeah, it did. Not even because of the results, but because of the reaction I saw within the team. It lifted me up a lot, and I really began to believe in this opportunity after the test.
So what changed? The attitude of those within the team?
Well, not that it really changed, no. I just saw the the way the tech crew reacted to the result, and to how the whole day had gone, how the preparations had gone, to the work that we did on the simulator afterwards. You could say that I realised I did do my job well, and that my chances were much higher than they seemed initially.
You do know that, for the whole world, you've derailed the beautiful story of Robert Kubica's comeback, don't you?
I do. To be honest, we've many times touched upon that subject – painful for some, not so for others. But you saw it – myself and Robert, we're talking here. He's a really nice, great person. I understand his position, I truly respect him, he's achieved so much, but yeah.... We're not here to be these good kids yielding and giving way to each other. It's every man for himself, and he understands it just as well. It happened the way it happened. And I think we've got a normal relationship.
No tension then? No need to talk about it?
I don't think so, and I think that's a sign of my great respect for him. He's an experienced person. I won't say “respect” a hundred times, list all of his achievements, but he gets it just as well. So no, there's no need in any talks like that.
This is the first Paddy Lowe-built Williams after his return. Did he say anything about his own ideas, about what he wants to achieve?
I think the most important thing is that we've reworked the concept a bit. When I say “we”, of course that was all established a long while ago, but then it was all being worked through over the past few months, including on the simulator.
As a whole, it is a much more aggressive concept. In many areas for engineers it's always a question of balancing between reliability and speed. And up to a certain point it was reliability that always took priority. But now in certain moments we've gone for a very aggressive approach – not exactly at big cost to reliability... but in some areas we've tried to first and foremost get the maximum out of the car, to then later do what needs to be done to make it reliable as well, as opposed to an approach where the car is extremely reliable, but just slow. There's a been a bit of a shift in ideology.
Have you spoken to Paddy in a more of an informal atmosphere? He has a wife from Russia, do you know her?
Yeah, we met in Moscow, during the SMP Racing press conference. Truth be told, both with him and with everybody else in the team, it's just a very simple human relationship. Honestly, that's maybe even surprising. Paddy, who's not only of high rank but has also achieved a lot in Formula 1, is still a very sincere person, straightforward and open, and a true race fan. And you don't meet people like that very often. Here's an example – I was in the canteen at the base, standing in a long, long queue, and next, in a queue exactly as big, stood Paddy. With a tray, just like all the mechanics, other employees. That's unusual to see.
That sounds good. But, as you know, F1 is not just a sport – compared to junior championships, there's more business here, more politics.
You know, now that I am where I am, I might even say that I understood it's actually the other way around. True, there's still a lot I don't know, a lot I haven't seen, but the way my relationship with the team has developed, as I've said, it's going surprisingly well. It was a hard five weeks. Very hard, even. But I am truly keen to be working with these people.